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Academic publishers forced to delay new titles in supply chain crunch

Academic publishers have been forced to delay the publication of new books and absorb rising costs as the industry struggles with paper shortages and shipping delays.

Groups in North America and Europe said printing schedules are taking at least twice as long, forcing them to alter publishing plans as well as use different types of paper and more expensive on-demand printers.

Many companies in the sector have this year warned of disruption stemming from paper shortages following strikes by workers in Finnish mills, as demand for books and packaging materials remains high. This has come amid price rises in almost all parts of the printing process, from parts for printers and shipping.

“For bookmaking it was a perfect storm like we’ve never imagined,” said Tim Jones, director of design and production at Harvard University Press.

He said the time it took to get books to warehouses had increased from eight to 16 weeks with the cost of publishing rising between 11 and 15 per cent. HUP has not yet increased customer prices.

Before the pandemic a new title from Duke University Press would typically take four weeks to go from press to warehouse, but now takes between nine and 17.

“I’ve haven’t seen schedules like that in 27 years,” said Amy Ruth Buchanan, director of editing, design and production, who added that last-minute changes to printing schedules were especially challenging, as printers struggled with plant shutdowns, staff shortages and shipping delays. 

“Deadlines were missed especially when the [supply chain] crisis first heated up . . . Our colleagues in marketing and distribution have probably got some extra grey hairs now.”

Although academic publishing is less cyclical than that of commercial fiction, which has peak periods of demand in anticipation of the summer and Christmas holidays, it is important that titles are made available for academic meetings and term dates for teaching.

Cathy Felgar, director of publishing operations at Princeton University Press, said the publisher had been forced to push back publication dates for up to 40 per cent of books since the start of the year. In most cases this had just been for a couple of weeks but she added “there has been worse than that and it’s so upsetting”.

“Print came surging back and there was not enough capacity,” she said. The publisher, which produces around 250 new titles annually, has taken measures such as choosing different paper types and going to different printers, but these have pushed up costs.

Wiley, which operates internationally, said supply chain pressures are causing problems globally. “Although we have not seen the same level of paper shortages in the UK/EMEA market at this point, those markets remain tight as well,” it said.

Neil de Cort, head of production at Polity Books, a small UK-based social sciences publisher, said the company had experienced “long” delays in the US. Although prices for energy and paper had also gone up in the UK it said longstanding relationships with printers had isolated it from shortages.

Although publishers said the pressure may ease next year following a global crunch in the supply of paper, they warned delays may continue as supply chains adapt to labour shortages and higher costs.

Buchanan said she expected “modest improvements” in schedules this year, but not a return to previous four-week turnrounds. At worst, she fears losing some paper choices permanently. 

“I think the paper problem won’t go away soon,” she said. “Paper mills don’t get set up or retooled quickly.”

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